Bernard Keane and Matthew Knott offered useful analysis yesterday of the silly and pompous open letter to the government by a gaggle of current media bosses all wanting to protest against the mere notion of an ownership public interest test.

What that clumsy, self-serving missive left unsaid was a real fear that might be lurking in the hearts of these mini-moguls: the prospect that any legislated test of public interest could also include a strengthened “fit and proper person” condition on individuals seeking to acquire a controlling stake in one of our major media companies.

And for those who can remember, the history of the “fit and proper” yardstick should give them pause.

In April 1989, two years after Alan Bond had bought the Nine Network from Kerry Packer, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal foreshadowed that it would begin hearings into whether Bond was a fit and proper person to hold a television licence.

The ABT had plenty of ammunition. They’d already found, among other things, that Bond had threatened to use his TV stations to “collect information” about a corporate foe, the AMP; they found that Bond had paid Joh Bjelke-Petersen $400,000 to protect his business interests in Queensland; they found that Bond employees had provided an ABT inquiry with faked radio tapes.

Bond’s credibility was shot to bits and his empire imploded. Within the year, Packer was able to buy back his TV network for a quarter of what he’d been paid for it by Bond just three years earlier. But the “fit and proper” wheel soon turned in the opposite direction.

In 1991, a cashed-up Packer — now in concert with Conrad Black — made his ill-fated takeover tilt at Fairfax. Public and political opposition to the prospect of a bullying buccaneer like Kerry Packer owning Granny was so strong that he was eventually forced to withdraw from the consortium. Black emerged with a dominant share of the company.

Then, not long after, the wheel swung yet again when the now-enobled Black was found to be a decidedly unfit and improper person to run any company, and went to jail.

Compared to all that, a “public interest” test seems quite inoffensive. 

Peter Fray

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